We cannot sit back and wait for opioids to destroy a generation of lost boys and girls - Susan Dalgety

The slight decrease in drug deaths across Scotland last year is good news, but only up to a point. There were still over 1,000 Scots killed by an overdose of illegal drugs, and we still have, shamefully, the highest number of annual drug deaths in Europe.
In January, Public Health Scotland issued a warning about the increase of opioids found on the streets and in prisons (Picture: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)In January, Public Health Scotland issued a warning about the increase of opioids found on the streets and in prisons (Picture: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)
In January, Public Health Scotland issued a warning about the increase of opioids found on the streets and in prisons (Picture: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

And here in the capital – Scotland’s richest city, a magnet for international tourists – drug deaths are on the increase. The figures released last week by the National Records of Scotland show that the number of people who lost their lives in Edinburgh rose from 109 to 113 and that drug-related fatalities have doubled here over the last ten years.

The overwhelming majority of deaths were accidental overdoses with some form of opiates involved – heroin or methadone – but there is a new danger lurking round the corner which could destroy communities.

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Synthetic opioids manufactured by criminal gangs are much stronger and far deadlier than street heroin or the methadone prescribed by the NHS.

In the USA, opioid addiction is a scourge on society. Statistics issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that drug deaths in 2021 were six times higher than in 1999, and that nearly three-quarters of the 2021 drug deaths involved an opioid.

States like West Virginia have been decimated by opioids, a crisis driven by a depressed economy, and far worse in marginalised communities where drugs offer a cruel alternative to a life empty of hope and ambition.

In January, Public Health Scotland issued a warning about the increase of opioids found on the streets and in prisons.

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David Liddell, head of the Scottish Drugs Forum, warned that Scotland needed to be prepared for an opioid epidemic. “We need to be extremely vigilant,” he said.

And Public Health Scotland has continued to warn that nitazenes – synthetic opioids which are much more powerful than heroin – are becoming far more common in Scotland. It says they “pose a substantial risk of overdose, drug-related hospitalisation and death”.

We cannot sit back and wait for opioids to destroy a generation of lost boys and girls, as they have in West Virginia and elsewhere in America.

A feasibility study by Edinburgh Health and Social Care Partnership into safe consumption rooms and community drug checking services is currently underway – it needs to come to a conclusion and fast.

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But the scale of the problem is so complex, and could get so much worse, that Edinburgh needs a range of interventions. In the States, the federal government funds a scheme called Drug-Free Communities Coalitions.

This community-based formal arrangement brings together 12 sectors including young people, schools, parents, local business, the media, local government and health services.

They choose at least two addictive substances to focus on, whether alcohol, heroin or opioids and, working within a national framework, try and change the culture in their community to reduce the risk of addiction among young people. It’s an idea worth considering for Edinburgh.

There is no single answer to the desperate drug addiction that kills so many people in our city, but that doesn’t mean we should shrug our shoulders and say, “not our problem”. We need to act now, before it’s too late.